There is no shortage of scouts who expect junior third baseman/designated hitter Anthony Rendon and a number of other Owls to play one day in Major League parks across the country. Just perhaps not this quickly.
For the second weekend in a row, Rice (10-9) took part in a tournament played in a MLB stadium, this time traveling to San Francisco, Calif. for the Cal Baseball Classic at AT&T Park. The struggles for Head Coach Wayne Graham's teams playing on the West Coast have been well documented over the last five years, but Rice looked to turn those fortunes around as they went out to the Bay Area for a trio of games against top national competition.
The Owls opened up the weekend tournament against Long Beach State University (9-7), a team that entered the game at just 6-6 but with wins against top 25 teams University of Arizona (13-4) and California State University-Fullerton (8-7). On the hill for Rice was freshman Austin Kubitza, the team's leader among starters with a stingy 2.03 earned run average. Kubitza, whose complete game six-hit shutout of Texas A&M University (13-4) in his previous start earned him C-USA Pitcher of the Week recognition, was again sharp against a high-quality opponent. The Dirtbags garnered just two hits in the game's first five innings, but the Owls' offense was unable to take advantage in the early innings. Both teams were scoreless until the bottom of the sixth inning, when Long Beach State led off with a single and a double to put two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Following a groundout to the pitcher, LBSU broke the stalemate with a bloop single on which center fielder Chase McDowell appeared to make a diving catch. Umpires ruled that McDowell trapped the ball, and the game's first run came in to score. Kubitza would strike out the next batter, but a single brought in the second run of the game to put Rice down 2-0.
The Owls' best offensive opportunity of the game came in the eighth after a two-out single by freshman left fielder Keenan Cook scored freshman third baseman Shane Hoelscher, but Cook would be stranded at second base to end the inning with Rice down 2-1. The team was unable to get in the tying run in the ninth, as they fell to the Dirtbags 2-1 despite a seven to five advantage in hits for Rice. Kubitza was strong again, going six innings while allowing just two runs, one of which was earned, on five hits with seven strikeouts.
Saturday night's opponent was the University of California (10-5), the tournament host who was ranked No. 20 by Baseball America entering the game. Pitching for Rice was John Simms, another freshman starter who has earned a spot in what has been a very strong starting rotation for Graham. Simms worked out of some trouble in the early innings and got help from his offense when sophomore second baseman Michael Ratterree's two-run homer in the fifth put Rice up 6-1 with Simms still in the game. Cal would add a run in the bottom of the sixth before the Golden Bears put together a two-out rally in the seventh, capped off by a two-run double that cut Rice's lead to 6-4.
After Cal tacked on one more in the eighth to make it 6-5, Rice sophomore closer Tyler Duffey gave up a leadoff double in the ninth before a single up the middle tied the game at six to force extra innings. Cal outscored the Owls 5-0 in the last four innings as the Rice offense went quiet, a theme that continued through the extra frames.
After two scoreless innings, Cal would get a runner to third with two outs in the bottom of the 12th before sophomore pitcher Tyler Spurlin struck out the batter to end the inning. Rice went down in order in the 13th and 14th innings but hung in the game due to strong relief work from Spurlin and senior pitcher Abe Gonzales. Ratterree would single with one out in the 15th but was stranded on second to keep the marathon game tied 6-6.
Sophomore first baseman/pitcher J.T. Chargois was pitching as Cal came up to bat in the 15th and led off with a single. After a sacrifice bunt and walk, a fielder's choice left runners on the corners with two outs. The game's deciding play came on a bunt single, as Cal's Derek Campbell reached safely, and the winning run came in for the walk-off victory. Rice had just one hit in the game's final seven innings, as they fell to 9-8 on the season entering the tournament's finale.
Facing off Sunday afternoon against University of California-Santa Barbara (7-6), Graham gave the start to sophomore Chase McDowell to try and snap the Owls out of their West Coast funk. For six innings the game looked like a mirror image of the Friday night outing, as McDowell was brilliant but found himself in a scoreless pitcher's duel. The Gauchos scored in the top of the seventh inning on a bases-loaded play, giving them the late 1-0 lead despite being outhit in the game seven to three up until that point. With McDowell still dealing, Rice broke through in the bottom of the eighth after Rendon's leadoff double was followed by a walk and an error to load the bases. A wild pitch brought in Rendon to tie the game at one apiece, but with runners on second and third with no outs, the Owls could not take the lead, and the next three batters were retired without the ball leaving the infield.
With extra innings imminent, McDowell came back in for the ninth inning and worked around a leadoff triple to give his team a chance for the walk-off win in the inning's bottom half. He would be rewarded for his stellar performance when junior right fielder Daniel Gonzales-Luna and Cook started off the inning with back-to-back singles before Chargois was hit by a pitch to load the bases. The hero would be Ratterree, who drove a fly ball to right field that brought in Gonzales-Luna on the sac fly to clinch the win. Led by McDowell's complete game four-hitter, the Owls scratched out a win in the series finale to go to 10-8 on the young season.
Coming off the 1-2 weekend in San Francisco, the Rice baseball team received some damaging news on Tuesday when MRI results from center fielder and cleanup hitter Jeremy Rathjen revealed a torn right ACL, as reported by MK Bower of FoxSports Houston. Rathjen went down on Friday night against Long Beach State after rounding first base on a single that led off the second inning. The injury will sideline Rathjen for the rest of the season, a huge blow to what has been an inconsistent offense through 18 games. Rathjen currently leads the team in RBIs with 18 and had started all 16 games of the season for Rice. The loss of Rathjen, an elite outfielder with a rare combination of power and speed, leaves a void in the middle of the lineup for Coach Graham with conference play just a week away.
The Owls clearly missed Rathjen on Wednesday night as they faced Dallas Baptist University (11-6) at Reckling Park. Rice appeared to be in control after Ratterree drew a leadoff walk, stole a base and then was scored off an RBI single from Hoelscher in the second inning. But that was all that would come from the Rice bats, as they were held scoreless for the next nine innings. Junior pitcher Matthew Reckling was limited to three innings on the mound from the coaching staff but made the most of his nine outs, striking out three. Senior lefty Tony Cingrani continued his resurgence over the last week by whiffing six Patriots in four innings of work. Still, a run crossed the plate during his time on the field, as a fielding error allowed DBU's Ryan Behmanesh to get to first base, and, after a stolen base, Behmanesh scored the Patriots' first run of the game on an RBI single in the fifth inning. The game was scoreless through the tenth inning, until Duffey allowed a two-run homer in the top of the eleventh inning, and the Rice bats continued to be quiet in the bottom half of the inning, giving DBU a 3-1 upset victory.
Rice starts off a weekend series tonight at 6:30 as they play host to Louisiana Tech University (8-8) at Reckling Park.